Many people tuning in to last January’s U.S. figure skating nationals noticed an unusual number of red baseball caps with the Kansas City Chiefs logo on them. It wasn’t because these figure skaters had suddenly developed a passion for baseball.
Pairs skater John Coughlin had recently committed suicide after charges of sexual misconduct were filed against him. At U.S. nationals, Coughlin’s coach and agent distributed, in his honor, hats bearing the logo of his favorite baseball team.
I thought about this incident—about skaters holding or wearing red caps, some of them enthusiastic and others looking uncomfortable—when I was reading Rachael Denhollander’s searing new memoir, What Is a Girl Worth?
Faith must be properly rooted and grounded in love before it can bear good fruit—fruit like integrity, courage, a passion for justice, and a commitment to the well-being of others. On the other hand, when our faith gets tangled up with pride, power, and control, they strangle that fruit before it ever has a chance to grow.Denhollander, you may recall, knows a few things about sexual abuse scandals in sports. She is the former gymnast who led the effort to take down Larry Nassar, the doctor who had assaulted her and numerous other young girls under the guise of treating their injuries.
Viewers everywhere were riveted by Denhollander’s passionate victim impact statement, delivered in a Michigan courtroom before Nassar was given a sentence of 40 to 175 years in prison. Believers and nonbelievers alike lauded her words:
You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen in this courtroom today.
But how many of us gave serious thought to what it took Denhollander and the other women in the case to get to that moment?
In What Is a Girl Worth? Denhollander makes sure we know exactly what it took. Before she was that brilliant advocate we applauded in the courtroom, Rachael was a young girl too confused and frightened to tell anyone that her doctor was molesting her, convinced that no one would take her seriously. Adults she trusted—including adults at her church—had given her every reason in the world to believe that.
Denhollander is a woman of formidable intellect, stamina, and integrity. She needed to be. As recounted in her book, she needed every last ounce of her intelligence, her energy, her strength, her legal training, her research and networking skills, her diplomacy, her professionalism, and her faith in God—not to mention the emotional and practical support of family and friends—to make headway in this fight. Her demeanor and even her clothing had to be perfect. She and her husband spent time and money they couldn’t afford on a battle whose outcome they couldn’t predict. They endured countless smears against her character and attempts to undermine and derail her case.
Frankly, it’s a miracle that Denhollander still had any faith left, in the justice system or in God. The first man to molest her had been a college student at her church, when she was just seven years old. Her church’s response—or non-response—taught young Rachael “a lesson I’ve never forgotten and had in fact taken into the exam room with Larry: If you can’t prove it, don’t speak up. Because it will cost you everything.”
That lesson was only reinforced when, for the sake of her own young gymnastics students, Denhollander tried to warn a senior coach about Nassar, only to have her warning dismissed. He was such a beloved and celebrated figure in the sport that no one was willing to believe ill of him. And the lesson was reinforced yet again in adulthood, when the church her family was attending became embroiled in a denomination-wide sexual abuse coverup. Church leaders turned on her when she raised the alarm.
I wish I could say that the two churches that let Denhollander down were atypical. Unfortunately, they’re not. Boz Tchividjian, executive director of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), estimates that in 9 out of 10 cases, Christian churches rally to the cause of alleged abusers rather than victims.
Consider that the very day that Rachael Denhollander released her book, two other Christian women also released books about the sexual abuse they had suffered and the pushback they got from their fellow Christians for talking about it. In We Too, Mary DeMuth explains, “Church leaders prefer reputation over justice, so they cover [abuse] up, heaping shame upon shame on the survivor, favoring the predator to the one preyed upon. In this petri dish of silence, where no one is brought to task or judgment, abusers flourish and reproduce.”
And Jennifer Michelle Greenberg recounts in Not Forsaken that the father who raped her and beat her was a regular churchgoer. From bitter experience, she writes,
Abuse victims have a deep fear that if we break our silence, our words will fall on deaf or disinterested ears. If, like Christ, we tell someone, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death, and I want to tell you why,” but we’re met with complacent responses like, “You should pray about it,” or “Are you certain that’s what happened?” or “I’m sure she didn’t mean it like that,” or “What did you do to make him lust that way?” all our fears are confirmed. And it breaks our hearts.
As Psalm 11:3 asks, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” When the Body of Christ itself denies comfort, aid, and support to victims, how can we be surprised that so many women hide their stories for years, too traumatized and hopeless to speak?
Five months after the display of red baseball caps at the skating competition, Bridget Namiotka finally broke her silence. A former pairs partner of John Coughlin, she stated that he had sexually abused her for two years when she was a teenager. Then Ashley Wagner, former national champion and world silver medalist, also came forward. Coughlin, she wrote in USA Today, had molested her at a party when she was 17 years old. At last, the narrative around John Coughlin began to shift. At last, the focus expanded beyond his tragic suicide, to the crimes that had led to the charges against him.
That image of the baseball caps has stayed with me, as a symbol of everything that sexual abuse survivors are up against in this unjust world. When Bridget Namiotka and Ashley Wagner saw that display of support for their abuser, the weight of their secrets must have felt nearly unbearable. But pushing back against that weight was the need to protect others. Wagner would write in her article, “This year I watched a phenomenal young superstar, Alysa Liu, become the U.S. figure skating national champion at 13. It was in that moment that I knew I had to come forward with my story. I want to make this sport safer for those kids.“
Rachael Denhollander would most likely concur. Her parents always taught her, she says, to do everything out of love:
Love didn’t thrive on authority; it thrived on sacrifice. Love sought to communicate and understand. Love was humble, admitting wrongs and seeking to repair the damage. Love protected. . . . Abusers pass the blame to others, they told me. But that’s not what love does. Love cares first about the harm done to the other person. Unlike abuse, love does not excuse or minimize wrongdoing.
That kind of love would ultimately motivate her long and arduous pursuit of justice. Therein lies the difference between Christians like Rachael Denhollander and the Christians who refused to listen to her when she was first trying to tell her story. Faith must be properly rooted and grounded in love before it can bear good fruit—fruit like integrity, courage, a passion for justice, and a commitment to the well-being of others. On the other hand, when our faith gets tangled up with pride, power, and control, they strangle that fruit before it ever has a chance to grow.
Tragically, the state of our churches today, as scandals and cover-ups keep coming to light, suggests that the latter kind of faith has become more common than the former. The scramble to protect our image has done nothing but tarnish our image. To change this, we have to lay down the pride and self-interest that lead us to silence victims, learn to listen humbly and compassionately, and ally ourselves with the weak and defenseless. It’s the only way to create a world where people like Rachael Denhollander, Mary DeMuth, and Jennifer Michelle Greenberg seek and find justice with the help and support of the church, not in spite of the church.